Now this is fun! Silent movies as they were supposed to be seen – on the big screen and with a live piano accompaniment. Sure DVDs of the early masters of comedy are enjoyable, but watching a classic Buster Keaton movie in a dark room full of other fans and a pianist playing along is special. If you like film then you’ll already know the delights of the double bill, but couple that with black and white, silent, 4:3 screen ratio and live music and you have an experience that is worth seeking out.
Luckily for you I can tell you where it’s happening. Until February 26th 2014 the BFI are running a Buster Keaton festival. That would be exciting enough on its own – a chance to see the comedy maestro on the big screen. But with live pianists the experience is just as it would have been when the films were released in the Twenties.
With the grand title A Serious Man, a Modern World: Buster Keaton and the Cinema of Today, the season not only includes Keaton’s work, but also more contemporary films that in some stylistic or thematic way relate to Buster’s oeuvre. Chosen by Geoff Andrew these include Elia Suleiman’s black comedy The Time That Remains and Bill Murray’s morose turn in Broken Flowers by Jim Jarmusch.
Different pianists are providing the music for the silent films over the course of the festival. When I visited John Sweeney was in the hot seat to the right of the screen. His music made a perfect complement to the film, clearly he has seen a few silent comedies before. (Actually it turns out he has been playing for silent movies since 1990). It is unusual to watch a film and then look across to a pianist, eyes focused on the same screen, building and relieving tension in line with the visuals.
The Navigator and The Electric house were on the bill, and Sweeney played for both. The Navigator is 65 minutes long – for the instrumentalist that’s a physical as well as mental marathon. For the rest of us it was a chance to experience some rarely-seen Keaton on the big screen.
Neither The Navigator or The Electric house is long on plot, both being a series of set piece comic scenes. The Electric House still works particularly well, with Buster, mistaken for an electrician fitting a rich man’s house with all the latest mod-cons, some of which we have today – although I don’t know anyone with an escalator in their house. There is a Heath Robinson charm to most of the devices, especially the one that automatically collects billiard balls and resets them on the table – but of course life as seen by Buster Keaton never runs smoothly. The automatic library-book-removing-from-shelf machine starts hitting people in the back and causing fights. The folding wall-bed folds with someone in it. The escalator speeds up and spit people out of the top into a convenient swimming pool.
Fast-paced shorts (The Electric House is 23 minutes) work particularly well for Keaton’s brand of humour, and although long-form films like The General are well-regarded classics, the longer The Navigator drags in places. In this Buster plays Rollo Treadway, a member of the idle rich who through machinations most unlikely ends up on a drifting ship, alone but for the girl of his dreams. Set piece calamities occur, but there are many inventive solutions to cooking and (fighting marauding natives…) as they both learn for the first time how to fend for themselves.
Watching a double bill of Keaton films from 90 years ago demonstrates how cinema has changed in what is only one (longish) life-time. Editing is minor, the camera is set up to film a scene which then proceeds to unfold in front of it. There are few closeups or cuts, and images hang around for much longer than they would today. It doesn’t always come off – we’ve seen 90 more years of film than the original viewers, and got more picky, but when Buster is fencing with a sword fish or trying to boil an egg your attention will not be on the technicalities.
If you want to get into silent comedy then Keaton is a great place to start. Begin with the shorts or The General and you’ll soon be petitioning the BFI to show at least one silent comedy every week. And searching the small ads for a travelling pianist to employ at home every time you want to watch a Buster Keaton DVD.